Police will lose the power to bail people indefinitely under plans announced by the home secretary, lawyer Tom Crone says the system is “grotesque”.
The news is being welcomed by the president of the association of chief police officers (Acpo) Sir Hugh Orde and by campaigners, who have complained about suspects being kept on police bail – sometimes subject to restrictive conditions – for long periods of time. But there is a disagreement at the heart of government about the way the plans should be implemented.
The Home Secretary Theresa May believes that police should be allowed to extend the bail after the 28th day up to three months without seeking permission from a magistrate. But their coalition colleagues believe that judicial oversight should apply immediately after the initial 28-day period, according to a senior Liberal Democrat source.
The source said that there was a “genuine debate” to be had and the two proposals have been put into the government’s consultation, which was released on Thursday. The source said that Theresa May’s announcement of her plans had to be delayed while the two parties sought an agreement over the issue.
Amid concerns that people were being held in legal limbo while police investigated allegations against them, Theresa May said it “cannot be right that people can spend months or even years on pre-charge bail with no oversight” as she launched a consultation on the time limit.
“I believe we need a statutory time limit in place to ensure people do not spend months or even years on bail, only for no charges to be brought,” she said.
The government’s proposals include revising the Police and Criminal Evidence Act so a suspect under investigation can be released without bail.
The former legal manager of News International has branded the time people can be put on pre-charge police bail “almost third world.”
Speaking exclusively to Channel 4 News, Tom Crone, who was arrested in 2011 at the height of the phone-hacking scandal, welcomed today’s proposal but claimed the current system amounted to “a grotesque abuse of power.”
Tom Crone said: “This is welcome news if not long overdue. It is simply not right that people spend years caught up in this legal limbo, in what amounts to a grotesque abuse of power, almost third world.
“To be put on police bail – in my case two years, one month and three days – with restrictions on contacting people, travel bans, huge reputational damage and untold stress on families.
“Then they send you a standard letter saying they don’t have the evidence, which is what I told them on day one.
“Fair administration of justice it ain’t.”
Crone was told in October 2014 he will not face prosecution.
The proposals were welcomed by Sir Hugh Orde, who told Channel 4 News: “I think bail should be used sparingly and proportionately and there are, without question, some big concerns about individuals being held on police bail for very long periods of time. That does militate against what one could argue is natural justice and fairness.
“The issue is complex. IT, cybercrime, the possession of computers, mobile phones — when serious cases are being investigated, that takes time to progress and it’s fairer to have someone on bail than in custody, so there’s a balance to be struck.
“But my sense is that the service fully understands the issue and, in the routine, I would have no difficulty with a limitation and I would equally have no difficulty with some judicial oversight for serious cases where we would have to argue to keep a person on bail for an extended period of time.”
The Home Office has reportedly estimated that the changes could affect around 60,000 cases. And Dominic Ponsford, the editor of Press Gazette – which has campaigned against limitless police bail – said that many journalists have been held on police bail for years at a time while police investigated claims against them – many of whom were later told there would be no criminal case against them.
“It means that they have suffered huge punishment no matter what. The reputational damage is huge. If you are in an industry like journalism or teaching, once you are on police bail, you cannot work. For a journalist to take a year out is very hard. For people with families, the stress has been unbearable,” he told Channel 4 News.
Ms May also proposed measures to increase cooperation between the police and other public sector organisations so evidence can be obtained more quickly.
The Home Office said the proposed changes, the biggest reform in 30 years, would significantly reduce both the number of individuals subject to, and the average duration of, pre-charge bail.
The Home Secretary said: “this government is determined to support the police as they work tirelessly to bring justice to victims.
“But it cannot be right that people can spend months or even years on pre-charge bail with no oversight. That is why we launched a review to fundamentally re-examine the way pre-charge bail is used and authorised.
“I believe we need a statutory time limit in place to ensure people do not spend months or even years on bail, only for no charges to be brought. I encourage people to share their views and help shape these reforms.”
The move follows a campaign backed by former Home Office minister Damian Green which warned that people were left “languishing in a form of legal limbo” as a result of open-ended bail.
Figures released in October showed more than 70,000 people in the UK were on bail, with around 5,400 for more than six months.